Saturday, December 31, 2011
Friday, December 30, 2011
Lost ships, missing colonies, dreadful secrets, assassination attempts: it's all in a day's work for antiquities dealers Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath. And in a galaxy thousands of years into the future where humanity has spread far into the stars and countless civilizations have risen and fallen, there are plenty of secrets to uncover.
Only three niggles beset me: One, McDevitt uses the "sabotaged aircar" as a plot device way too much. Second, the technology do not always seem convincingly "futuristic." But this universe was originally established in 1989 with A Talent for War, so some "retroism" to its "future" might not be wholly unexpected. Third, the gender politics seem too contemporary, even retrograde. But perhaps the latter two details are not accidental at all. One of the themes of the books is that history is contingent and ultimately mysterious. There are thousands of years of Golden Ages, Dark Ages, and blank spots in their history, and the galaxy they inhabit is in no way a straight line of progress from our time. Just because they have faster-than-light travel doesn't mean they're all that much more "advanced" than us.
But those are really just niggles. Compulsively readable, this series is a tasty genre-melange of science-fiction, mystery, and adventure. Recommended for anyone who likes a nice bit of intrigue and investigation.
Winning Mars by Jason Stoddard
Jere Gutierrez built a network from a YouTube channel. But in a near-future where currencies from virtual reality games are stronger than the dollar and risk-assessment algorithms rule business decisions, "linear entertainment" is waning. So when an Old Hollywood (70s-00s) producer pitches Gutierrez a reality show, a reality show about going to Mars, Gutierrez is first aghast, then intrigued, then hooked. Money woes, technical challenges, and government interference all must be overcome to get eleven contestants of widely different motivations to Mars, where they'll race for fifty million dollars... and their lives.
As I've mentioned before, I'm totally over dystopias. Thankfully, then, despite worries at the beginning, the world of Winning Mars isn't really dystopic. It seems like a real world, with both good and bad aspects to it. IMHO, it is a plausible extrapolation, for the most part, at least from our current vantage point (though undoubtedly in ten years it'll seem completely off-base).
What I enjoyed most about it was its hopefulness and optimism about humanity. Ultimately, it pleads the need for the human imagination and the drive to go forth, making space for adventure and crazy-eyed idealism, taking chances, exploring, pushing, growing. As a child of Trek, this speaks to my very soul.
The Folded World by Catherynne M. Valente
Sequel to last year's Habitation of the Blessed, this is the tale of Prester John's daughters, of the war that brought doom to his kingdom, and the beginning of the end of magical things.
As in Habitation of the Blessed, this is a metafiction more than fiction, a story about stories, about the transmission of stories, and "history." What is fiction, what is history, what is myth, but lies? Can lies be true? It's also about love and war and parenting and religious fanaticism and hatred and death and Apocalypse.
"Beautiful" is the best word to describe it. The language is achingly beautiful. Lovely and haunting, full of melancholy and wistfulness, this is an utterly enthralling and enchanting tale of loss change.
The Unexpected Miss Bennet by Patrice Sarath
Poor Mary Bennet. The middle sister, the "ugly" sister, the dull sister, with none of the vivacity of her younger sisters, or the beauty and sense of her older sisters, the one always overlooked and unappreciated by anyone. Everyone just takes for granted that she's happy with her sermons and her piano practice and her moral superiority. But if that's not all she wants for herself? What if she wants to be heard and seen and appreciated? What if she wants to fall in love?
Some time away from home, an unexpected friendship, and the absence of her overshadowing sisters brings Mary out of her shell and allows her to finally find herself. And even more unexpectedly, along comes a suitor and the most unlikely of the Bennet sisters just might find love after all.
An utterly charming and wonderful confection, highly recommended for those who love Austen or even just sweet historical stories.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Thursday, December 22, 2011
A selection of secrets:
12. Amazon is not "evil" (J Daunt).
15. You don't have to read every book you buy, and you certainly don't have to finish the book you've started.
17. Narrative (aka storytelling) is in our DNA. It's called gossip.
20. Literary fiction is like sci-fi. It's a genre.
23. Two writers, alone in a room, will talk about royalties not art.
38. Ebooks are not the end of the world.
(Via The Hairpin)
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Monday, December 19, 2011
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Thursday, December 15, 2011
I have to admit, I'm with Mr. Scalzi on this one. I'm much more forgiving of fantasy than science fiction with suspension of disbelief. (I mean, the density of lava in Lord of the Rings? We're really going to quibble that Gollum sunk into lava in a moment that had much more to do with the artistic and dramatic themes Jackson had been playing with Gollum the whole trilogy?)
But even with science fiction, I can forgive a lot. Faster-than-light travel? Sure! (In fact, I dislike "hard" science fiction that goes out of its way to not have FTL. Boring!) Teleportation? Sure! Sound in space? Sure! Even there, though, there's a limit. The "red matter" and "supernova threatening the galaxy" thing in the latest Star Trek movie bothered me tremendously. IT DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY! We all have our lines.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Monday, December 12, 2011
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Friday, December 09, 2011
Thursday, December 08, 2011
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Monday, December 05, 2011
Monday, November 28, 2011
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Thursday, November 24, 2011
John Adams wrote in the Massachusetts Constitution:
The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.How can so many people have seemed to have forgotten this? Why are so many people convinced they are "rugged individualists" being oppressed by the government from realizing their potential as world-shattering giants, when the truth is they're mediocrities and would be even worse off than they already are if the magical "market" really did dictate all our lives? Tyranny is to be despised and resisted, but we're so far from tyranny. Yet many seem to feel we're a hop, skip, and a jump away from death camps. Government is not, in and of itself, the enemy! We should be trying to make government better, not cripple or dismantle it, and electing people who are openly hostile towards it.
Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors [the Puritans]; and let each successive generation thank Him, not less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages.But I think we could do with a bit of Puritanism. Not the scolding, judgmental, hypocritical part, but the literate, intellectual, contemplative, uncertain part. To be a Puritan was to wrestle, every day, with one's soul, to constantly search one's inner self, to try to do as God wills, to try to figure out just if one is saved or not. They lived in a state of constant uncertainty and anxiety. Now, I know a little bit about living in a state of constant uncertainty and anxiety, and it isn't exactly fun, but we seem to have such outsized self-confidence and self-delusion these days that a dose of anxiousness might do us good. As Vowell says, "From New England's Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution."
Mario Cuomo at the 1984 Democratic Convention (addressed to Reagan, thus the "Mr. President," but I think today it resonates more as a cri de coeur against the modern Republican party and the "1%" in general.):
A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well....Maybe, maybe, Mr. President, if you visted some more places; maybe if you went to Appalachia, where some people still live in sheds; maybe if you went to Lackawanna, where thousands of unemployed steelworkers wonder why we subsidized foreign steel. Maybe--Maybe, Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there; maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she neeeded to feeder her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn't afford to use.Then, as now, we were "in the worst recession since 1932" and the deficit was the "largest in the history of the universe." Proper government is "the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another's pain, sharing one another's blessings." Again, we seem to have forgotten how do do this. Everything now is vicious in-fighting, people fighting over whatever scraps they have. "Sharing" is no longer in the American vocabulary, and for the rich it seems a dirty word. Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts, while the poor starve, bridges crumble, and unemployment drags on.
Protestantism's evolution away from hierarchy and authority has enormous consequences for America and the world. On the one hand, the democratization of religion runs parallel democratization. The king of England, questioning the pope, inspires English subjects to question the king and his Anglican bishops. Such dissent is backed up by a Bible full of handy Scripture arguing for arguing with one's king. This is the root fof self-government in the English-speaking world.American universities are the envy of the world. We have armfuls of Nobels. We have some of the smartest, most innovative researchers and scientists in the world. We were founded by some of the most eloquent, literate, and learned men in history. And yet we don't cotton to no book learnin' 'round these parts. We all think we're experts, even if we know nothing. Evolution? Just a theory. Global climate change? A scam. We know nothing about biology or climatology, but, dern it, we don't need no them thar scientists tellin' us what to think! The Bible's all the book we need! We'll spend billions on sports, but cut school budgets to the bone, because those evil teachers' unions are greedy bastards. We landed on the moon and pried apart the secrets of the atom, but we seem to more and more retreat into ignorance and anti-intellectualism.
On the other hand, Protestantism's shedding away of authority,...inspires self-reliance--along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy--namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It's why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol' boy who's fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid of or killed.
So now that I've depressed or enraged everyone, I'll wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving!
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Friday, November 18, 2011
What if instead of one of his tragicomedies, The Tempest was actually one of Shakespeare's histories, the true story of an exiled Duke of Milan and his daughter? And what if Prospero, his immortal children, and their bound wind spirit servitors guard humanity against the capriciousness and malevolence of the supernatural under the guise of a global corporation unto this very day? That is the conceit of this fantastic trilogy.
When Prospero suddenly disappears, his most faithful child Miranda's world is turned upside down. With the help of embodied wind spirit-cum-detective Mab, she has to unravel the mystery of her father's disappearance, as well as comply with the wishes he left in a message to track down and warn her estranged siblings of the infernal threat stalking them. But as Miranda delves deeper into her fractured family's history, the more mysteries appear, and the darker, and deeper, the threats become. Did her father mind-control Miranda into docile subservience? Are some of her siblings in league with the infernal? Is there any way to piece her fractured family back together? And how are they to rescue Prospero from the very bowels of Hell itself?
Miranda is a wonderful protagonist. Held in a sort of stasis for centuries, Miranda has to deal with feelings for the first time: empathy, vulnerability, fear, compassion, and, perhaps most of all, love. She also must face the secrets that litter her life, secrets that threaten to upend everything she thought she ever knew. She has to, in short, become human.
The Prospero family dynamics are well-drawn and believable. Can you imagine how annoying siblings can be over the course of centuries? Very. But they're family, so you love them anyway. I think Lamplighter strikes a good balance between those two impulses in the sibling banter and interrelationships. Some siblings are closer than others, and some downright hate one another, but in the end, they're still family.
If you're a mythology and folklore nerd like me, you'll love the books for their crazy-quilt mash-up of lore. Greek gods, Hermetic spirits, Japanese ogres, medieval angelology, quasi-Gnostic cosmologies, elves, witches, and Santa Claus all have a place in the Prospero world.
If you're a "pondering the big questions of existence" nerd like me, you'll love the books even more. In between the demon-battling and sibling rivalry, there's some serious theological speculating going on. What is faith? What does it mean to forgive? What is free will? What is sin and redemption? There is a very strong, though thoroughly unconventional, Christianity undergirding the story, but one can be an absolute heathen like me and still appreciate Lamplighter's examination of those questions. However, the only discordant note comes towards the very end of Prospero Regained, when Lamplighter starts to make thinly-veiled condemnations of modern society and the inequities and "immoralities" of it, including an anti-abortion message. I thought that was laying on a bit thick.
A wild melange of Shakespeare, Dante, folklore, mythology, quest, mystery, the Prospero series is a delight. Brimming with whimsy and fantasy, it's marvelous entertainment punctuated by passages of stunning beauty and lyricism.
A More Perfect Heaven by Dava Sobel
All most people know about Nicolas Copernicus is that he "discovered" that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and maybe that he was Polish. If you're a nerd like me, you also know that he was the nephew of a bishop, studied in Italy, and didn't publish his work until he was on death's door. The details of his life are otherwise either a mystery or an irrelevance. Neither option could be further from the truth, however.
From a prosperous Polish family, he came under the care of his bishop uncle, who procured for him a lucrative canonship at the cathedral of Frauenberg. After his studies in Italy, where he trained in both astronomy and medicine, it is there he returned and lived out the rest of his life. The security and authority he enjoyed as a canon allowed him the time and resources to perform his astronomical observations, as well as pursue his other interests, including coinage and the translation of ancient texts. He was a diligent and fair administrator for the lands belonging to the cathedral during a trying time; he lived in a warzone between Poland and the Prussian lands of the Teutonic Knights. Add to that the firestorm of the Reformation and the political intrigues in the bishopric, and his was no dull, obscure life.
As he approached the end of his life, a young mathematician named Rheticus suddenly appeared at his door. A professor from Wittenberg, home of Martin Luther and the very eye of the Reformation, Rheticus had heard of Copernicus's ideas (though his full explication hadn't been published, his ideas were known in intellectual circles), and came to Copernicus for tutelage, despite the dangers of travel and the fact that the bishop had banished all Lutherans from his territory, and also to help him finish and publish his work. Copernicus, fearing ridicule and the specter of his own inaccuracy, had eschewed publication of his masterwork, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, for years, despite the entreaties of friends and even cardinals. Rheticus, however, finally convinced him to publish.
No one, of course, knows precisely what they said to one another, so Sobel uses the facts that are known to construct a short play that comprises the middle section of the book. As a play... it's fine. I think it'd play much better live, as most plays do. In the hands of good actors, it would probably be a really riveting performance.
After his death, Rheticus and Copernicus's friend, Bishop Giese, tirelessly worked to see that his book was circulated and all credit due him given. An unauthorized preface that downplayed his heliocentric theory as a mere hypothesis suitable for mathematical calculation but with no basis in reality sent both of them into a rage. And the reaction of many, including Luther, was one of scorn. Did not Scripture clearly say that the Earth did not move? Mathematicians and astronomers took to his tables and methods of calculation, but mostly disregarded the heliocentrism as well. It was eventually placed on the Index of Forbidden Books and condemned as heresy by the Catholic Church. However, beginning with Tycho (who did not believe in heliocentrism, but admired it nonetheless), Kepler, and Galileo, the book and the system gained wider acceptance and adoption, making way for the whole of modern astronomy and physics.
I found myself become rather fond of Copernicus by the time I finished the book, and Sobel obviously felt the same way. Copernicus comes across as a brilliant, conscientious, learned, kindly man with many friends. But he was also timid, and perhaps too self-conscious, a trait of which I know quite a lot about and sympathize with.
Despite her being one of the most prominent popular science writers of the day, I'd never read any of Sobel's work until A More Perfect Heaven. She is an engaging enough writer, and uses ample quotations from Copernicus himself and his contemporaries to good effect, showing that Copernicus was a great mind, witty and learned. This short, economical account putting Copernicus and his ideas in historical and intellectual context is highly recommended for learning about a very important man who is far too little known generally.
Master of the House of Darts by Aliette de Boddard
Third in de Boddard's Obsidian and Blood series of historical-fantasy mysteries set in the Aztec Empire. When a solider returning from a war to obtain captives for sacrifice dies in mysterious, and mystical, circumstances, the whole of mighty Tenochtitlan is threatened by a curse-disease that soon begins claiming more victims. As in the first two books, Acatl, High Priest of the God of Death, must navigate the treacherous political and magical currents of the Aztec Empire to solve the murder, discover who or what is behind the attack, and stop them. But as his investigation continues, he soon discovers that a powerful sorcerer with a grudge against the Empire, and an incipient coup against the current, ineffectual emperor, may be too much for him to handle. Even gods are frightened.
Another wonderful entry into a fascinating and unusual series. The Mesoamerican setting and the culture and magical systems that go with it are utterly unique in fantasy literature, which still is predominated by European settings and conceptions. Instead of a world of castles and magic wands, it is a world of pyramids and blood, and it is refreshing.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
I love my books; that much is obvious if you've been reading for more than a minute. I have a terrible time getting rid of them, even though I have really no room for them. It is physically and psychically painful to cull my library. But sometimes I really do feel them weighing on me, or, rather, my need for them weighing on me. At times, I want to just chuck the whole lot of them in a bonfire. I just wish I could come to some sort of equanimity between obsessive hoarding and blithe disregard.
(Via The Little Professor)
Friday, November 11, 2011
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Michael Stabile, the fabulous former producer of The Tim and Roma Show [NSFW], has been working on the Chuck Holmes documentary for a while now, but mounting costs and credit card bills mean he can't finish it without our help. Won't you please help fund this important work about a fascinating and pivotal figure?